Participatory Budgeting Is a Beacon of Democracy

October 6, 2016

It often seems as if we live in an era of eroding democracy, and as we head into the final weeks of the 2016 election, many Americans appear dissatisfied with both major party nominees. However, democracy means more than pulling a lever once every four years. Direct democracy—everyday people making collective decisions about the issues facing their community—is alive, well, and growing in the United States. One prime example of this is the growth of participatory budgeting initiatives.

Participatory budgeting (PB) is a process that allows members of a community to choose how to spend public money. The process was first implemented in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre in 1989 as a means of re-engaging underserved squatter communities on the urban fringe. It has since spread to more than 3,000 cities and towns worldwide. In New York City alone, residents in 31 city council districts will be able to choose how to spend more than $40 million in this year’s PB cycle.

With PB, voting is not the central focus; it is only the conclusion of a process that emphasizes other forms of participation. In the first stage community members convene in public assemblies where project ideas are brainstormed and collected. Budget delegates, individuals who commit to developing the brainstormed ideas into concrete proposals, are sourced from these assemblies. Delegates then convene in committees where they whittle down long lists of project ideas based on their feasibility, need, and impact within the community. After reviewing the projects with relevant administrative agencies, finalized proposals are placed on a ballot.

Unlike elections, where polls are typically only open for a day, PB processes often allocate up to a week for voting. To vote in PB, all one needs to prove is residency in the community. Anybody can participate regardless of citizenship status and criminal record. In some locales, the minimum voting age is as low as 12. Many PB processes also feature multilingual ballots, such as in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where two-thirds of last year’s votes were cast in languages other than English.

PB is largely about improving brick-and-mortar community assets. In its birthplace of Porto Alegre, PB enabled residents to legislate themselves public amenities such as running water, electricity, local schools, and bus routes. While infrastructure in cities in the United States is nowhere near as poor as it was in the favelas of post-dictatorship Brazil, PB still serves an important role in maintaining community resources. In a time of fiscal austerity at higher levels of government, PB allows neighborhoods to improve and expand their physical assets and services.

PB is currently expanding into new and exciting realms. In Boston, a youth-only PB process has empowered residents between the ages of 12 and 25 to improve schools, parks, and streets in their neighborhoods. PB is also being implemented at campuses at the City University of New York; it is already in place at Queens College and Brooklyn College and is currently being expanded to new campuses, including Baruch and Hunter College.

However, PB’s impact extends far beyond the physical projects it funds. In a time marked by national turmoil and international crises, it may come as a surprise to some that the most effective solutions to big problems can be found in small communities. But in fact, PB has empowered the once-disempowered in countless cities, from Manhattan’s Upper West Side to the shantytown fringes of Sao Paolo. Assemblies and voting sessions have brought disparate individuals together in conversations about how to spend real money on real projects, and have fostered a sense of community in a way that only people-oriented democracy can. PB is also remarkably intersectional. By giving people who have historically been silenced a platform to have a say in decision-making, PB serves an integral role in a broader project of national healing.

Whether the goal is local asset building, youth engagement, civic policy to address poverty, or designing budgets for Black lives, PB can (and already does) play a role. Participatory budgeting gives everyday people power over the decisions that shape their daily experience and, in doing so, gives them a sense of control over their lives. In doing this, PB has the potential to revolutionize the way that Americans engage with politics and with one another.

Check out our one-pager on J.A.’s participatory budgeting project below: